Althorp Attic Sale

Three extraordinary sales of forgotten treasures found at the ancestral home of the Spencer family are expected to yield £20 million. Elizabeth Grice reports


Althorp House, the Spencers' country seat in Northamptonshire

Althorp House, the Spencers’ country seat in Northamptonshire Photo: PA
Althorp House sale: £300 - £500 Two Althorp Estate beech grain shovels from the late 19th century
£300 – £500 Two Althorp Estate beech grain shovels from the late 19th century Photo: CHRISTIE’S
Althorp House sale: £15,000 - £25,000 One of four Victorian glass and velvet centrepieces
£15,000 – £25,000 One of four Victorian glass and velvet centrepieces
Althorp House sale: £200 - £300 A Victorian gilt metal Spencer House key for St James's Palace gate
£200 – £300 A Victorian gilt metal Spencer House key for St James’s Palace gate Photo: CHRISTIE’S
Althorp House sale: £500 - £800 A selection of riding crops, from the mid-19th century
£500 – £800 A selection of riding crops, from the mid-19th century Photo: CHRISTIE’S
Althorp House sale: £15,000 - £20,000 An 18th-century Chinese armorial dinner service
£15,000 – £20,000 An 18th-century Chinese armorial dinner service Photo: CHRISTIE’S
Althorp House sale: £1,000 - £1,500 A George III mahogany, parcel-gilt and painted door from Spencer House
£1,000 – £1,500 A George III mahogany, parcel-gilt and painted door from Spencer House Photo: CHRISTIE’S
Althorp House sale: £300 - £500 Ice skates from the early 20th century
£300 – £500 Ice skates from the early 20th century Photo: CHRISTIE’S
Althorp House sale: £600 - £900 A brass-bound oak letter cabinet, circa 1870
£600 – £900 A brass-bound oak letter cabinet, circa 1870 Photo: CHRISTIE’S
Althorp House sale: Andrew Waters and Jeffrey Lassaline of Christie's inspect the Spencers' silverware
Andrew Waters and Jeffrey Lassaline of Christie’s inspect the Spencers’ silverware Photo: ANDREW CROWLEY

Torch in hand, Andy Waters felt his way down the dark stone corridors beneath Althorp House. The attics and stables of the ancestral home of the Spencer family were already yielding a chaotic hoard of forgotten treasures and now the Christie’s man was stumbling through the labyrinthine cellars towards his Tutankhamun moment.

“I crept along by the light of my torch,” he says. “I could see some brass flashing in the darkness. I went back for a plug-in light so I could see what was in this dark corner. Wrapped in old newspapers was a complete Victorian batterie de cuisine – more than 100 pieces, including copper pans, fish kettles and jelly moulds, that had been put aside 60 or 70 years ago and not used since.”

 Entering the tomb of Tutankhamun with his candle, the Egyptologist Howard Carter was a trifle more emotional about his find, but his exclamation as he saw the glint of gold – “I see wonderful things” – fits the occasion perfectly.

Waters has been toiling in the dark recesses of the Spencers’ country seat in Northamptonshire for the past three months, assembling the contents of what will be one of three sales of art and antiques this summer. The proceeds will pay for the current re-roofing and renovation project at Althorp Estate, childhood home of the late Diana, Princess of Wales.

The sales include treasures from both Althorp and Spencer House in St James’s, and are expected to make £20 million, of which half will come from the sale of two old masters, a Rubens and a Guernico.

And the trawl is not over yet. From time to time, Waters emerges blinking into the daylight with a new object of wonder as a team of porters bears the stash away – Meissen and Sèvres porcelain, time-blackened silver, innumerable chairs, cut-glass table display centrepieces. Five-hundred years of acquisition by a single family is enshrined in a gorgeous gallimaufry of items that outlived their usefulness or their charm and were put into store.

“When we went into the attics,” says Waters, head of Christie’s private collection and country house sales, “a run of what used to be servants’ bedrooms, they were full to bursting. The safes were overfull. We did not know from hour to hour what we would find. Dawn, the head housekeeper, was seeing some of the items for the first time and so was William, the butler. It is exciting that there is a provenance for almost everything. If there is a back story, we always try to nail it.”

The idea of finding treasure in the attic is so potent that even people without attics fantasise about it. Waters and his colleagues have been living out a kind of auction-house dream. They have uncovered everything the inventive aristocrat required for a well-rounded existence, from horse-drawn carriages and coachmen’s livery to several centuries of textiles, fine furniture, old cricket bats, ice skates, snuffboxes and beechwood shovels.

Such a haphazard agglomeration of the grand, the practical, the ostentatious and the frankly superfluous is rare. A set of four Irish glass table display centrepieces (£15,000-£25,000) commissioned by the Fifth Earl Spencer when he was Viceroy of Ireland; 17th-century Japanese mother-of-pearl inlaid Imari vases (£50,000-£80,000); a tortoiseshell dog collar with gold inlay (£500-£700); a snakeskin box of George III drafting tools (£500-£700); a George III silver-gilt child’s rattle and coral teether, circa 1800, with eight bells and a whistle (£400-£500) – a bit chewed, obviously, but still in its velvet-lined Bond Street box. Would upper-class family life have been supportable without them?

The 750 lots will consist of up to 5,000 individual items. Key works of art and furniture are from the family’s former London home, Spencer House, but some 500 lots are from the attics, stables and cellars at Althorp. Waters and his colleague, Jeffrey Lassaline, senior specialist in the silver department, are like boys in a sweetshop. They eye up the silver strongroom in Christie’s basement where hundreds of items are waiting to be cleaned, researched and catalogued. Nothing like this diversity, they say, would appear in regular sales.

Lassaline caresses a George II silver spoon engraved “kitchen”. It was made in 1755, so he surmises that it was part of a service made to mark the marriage of the First Earl. The Spencer family crest is somewhat worn and the spoon’s lopsided bowl testifies to centuries of stirring the pot. This is thrilling to a collector, he says, because it will always retain its provenance, and provenance adds cachet.

Waters produces a piece of old wood that you might find in a skip. “This doesn’t look particularly exciting,” he says, “but the label says this is the only piece of wood saved from the stables at Spencer House during the German bombardment of May 1941. Interestingly, a bomb also hit Christie’s in 1941 and for a time Spencer House was a temporary home for Christie’s, so that’s a nice synergy.”

The two carved roundels on the board, part of an elaborate whip rack, were where carriage drivers hung their whips. At Althorp, every aspect of life had its designer curio. And this being the house sale of a family of hoarders, the coachmen’s whips and hunting crops have survived, too.

Between the wars, the magnificent Spencer carriage collection was moved for safekeeping to the stables at Althorp House, a precaution that ensured its survival as the most important group of aristocratic 19th century horse-drawn family vehicles in existence – and the most extensive to remain in the family for whom they were made. At the top of the range, there’s the grand two-seater Regency state chariot lined with red Padua watered silk (£50,000-£80,000). Down the order, a posting barouche, complete with two postilions’ saddles (£20,000-£30,000), a park barouche for the ritual of driving out in Hyde Park (£20,000-£30,000), phaetons for the ladies and a charming little cream-and-livery-painted children’s horse-drawn sleigh (£2,000-£4,000).

“They were probably last used in the 19th century,” says Edward Clive, a director of Christie’s. “They are 13 carriages of the full spectrum, from the grandest Hyde Park Coronation-type conveyance to the private omnibus that must have been used to ferry guests from the station in Northampton to the house. All the undercarriages are painted in the same livery: Padua red with a yellow edging, the colour of the local Pytchley Hunt.”

He produces two “white metal” coronets, the size of small pineapples. “Feel the weight,” he says. “They were spares, identical to the four coronets on the roof of the state chariot.” Did this family throw away nothing?

The sale’s most modest item is a key. No one is quite sure whether the gilded Spencer House key (£200-£300), inscribed “St James’s Palace Gates, VR”, unlocked a garden gate, now vanished, or a private gate between St James’s Palace and Spencer House. Christie’s is working on it. Meantime, they are sure of one thing: the key makes a perfect Lot 1.

We have the auction catalogue for sale in the boutique at the following link:

The Woes of Earl Spencer, Diana’s Brother

Why is Earl Spencer such a Mean Father?
Article From the Daily Mail, London…..

Serial adulterer. Hypocrite. Bully. And a reputation, effortlessly acquired, for insensitivity bordering on the boorish.

Earl Spencer has been accused of many things down the years. Sometimes it has seemed as if the Spencer name could hardly sink any lower. Maybe it can.

The reason for this observation can be found in the contents of a High Court writ served on the lawyers who represented him in his bitter divorce from his second wife Caroline, the mother of his children, Ned, six, and Lara, four.

Lawsuit: Earl Spencer with his ex-wife CarolineLawsuit: Earl Spencer with his ex-wife Caroline

The case is about alleged failings in the legal advice Charles Spencer received that resulted, he says, in Caroline getting an extra £1 million as part of her final settlement.

Behind those bare facts, however, lies the full story. For the information contained in the document probably tells us more about Charles Spencer himself than any interview; in particular what some might construe as his ‘penny pinching’ attitude.

Princess Diana’s brother, after all, is one of Britain’s wealthiest men, with a personal fortune of around £100 million. Yet, we now know he was unhappy about the amount of money that should be set aside to provide for his own flesh and blood.

 The proof is there, in black and white, on Page 31 of the writ.

Ned and Lara will each get £30,000 a year. These payments will continue until his son and daughter (the earl also has four older children from his first marriage) complete their secondary education.

But what did their father think he should have paid for their upkeep? Answer: £25,000. In other words, a £5,000 per child per year saving for the man with the £100 million fortune.

Apart from the £30,000, Ned and Lara will also get £26,000 a year each for such things as ‘domestic assistance’ and medical bills. Their father, on the other hand, wanted to pay them £15,000 each.

The Earl was given credit for his impassioned address at the funeral of his sister Princess Diana, in 1997The Earl was given credit for his impassioned address at the funeral of his sister Princess Diana, in 1997

Now, to you or me, the sums might seem enormous. But bear in mind that putting the children through private education alone  –  if that is what their mother chooses for them  –  could eat up much of that money. The fees at top public schools such as Eton, which the Earl himself attended, come close to £30,000 a year. Charles Spencer blames his barrister Sir Nicholas Mostyn, QC, and his colleagues for having to dig deeper into his pockets to provide for his own family.

They did not warn him, he says, that changes in the law meant his divorce hearing last year would not be in private. To avoid the public gaze, he settled out of court. He insists his negotiating strategy would have changed had he been informed of the rule change earlier.

It meant, he said, that Caroline, 42,  –  former wife of media guru Matthew Freud and known to friends as ‘Pidge’  –  eventually walked away with a £5.65 million settlement, instead of £4.5 million.

Surely no one who has any knowledge of Charles Spencer’s track record as a husband would begrudge her a single penny. He and Caroline had been together for six years when he left her in 2006 for a glamorous American reporter who had been sent by her TV station to interview him. After 18 months he dumped her, too.

The very thing Charles Spencer feared most, of course  –  his private life being opened up to public scrutiny  –  has now come to pass because of his lawsuit. Not that Charles Spencer thinks he has done anything wrong. He never does.

In his own eyes, at least, he is the victim: of the Press (‘vicious’, ‘ vindictive’, ‘dishonest’ and ‘highly intrusive’ is how his writ describes the media); and of Caroline herself, whose original requests during their divorce negotiations he deemed to be ‘beyond any reasonable expectation’.

What his divorce document doesn’t disclose is the exact fate of the former martial home; the Georgian townhouse, with elegant porticoed facade and overlooking Regent’s Canal in North West London, where Caroline and the children  –  his children  –  had been living happily since their parents separated four years ago and where Caroline wanted to remain.

It is believed to have been the principal reason why their divorce dragged on for so long.

The sticking point has now been resolved. As part of the settlement, Charles has got the house and Caroline has moved out into rented accommodation.

So much for Charles Spencer’s devotion to his ‘blood family’, which he famously referred to in his impassioned address at his sister Princess Diana’s funeral in 1997.

But then what should we expect from a man who has shown such a shameless approach throughout his personal life?

During his first divorce in 1997, from model Victoria Lockwood, the mother of his four other children, she claimed he was a pathological philanderer in the five months that she was in an addiction clinic battling anorexia and drinking problems. Spencer denies these claims.

The disregard manifested itself in other ways. At a party, when he was reminded of his late father’s remark that he should stick with Victoria through ‘thick and thin’, Spencer famously joked to guests that Victoria was ‘thin, and certainly thick.’ He insists this was not meant to be taken seriously.

The Earl with his first wife, South African model Victoria Lockwood. The pair are seen here holding their twins The Earl with his first wife, South African model Victoria Lockwood. The pair are seen here holding their twins

His divorce from Victoria was settled in South Africa, avoiding an expensive English divorce award. Victoria, 45, mother of Kitty, 19, twins Eliza and Katya, 18, and Louis, 16, still lives in Cape Town.

After Victoria came Caroline, of course. We have already mentioned how he walked out on her for another woman four years ago.

She was American television reporter Coleen Sullivan. The glamorous Coleen threw up her career  –  and a long-term fiance  –  to make her life with Charles Spencer in England after going to interview him at Althorp about Princess Diana. After two years, he decided that life without Coleen would be preferable to life with her.

Back in Bonny Doon, a dusty township south of San Francisco, her father Michael Sullivan, screwed up his face when asked this week about his daughter’s relationship with Spencer. ‘He’s a jerk,’ declared Mr Sullivan, a former police officer in his 60s. ‘He [Spencer] can’t handle strong women.’

It seems that Coleen took exception to his unreasonable behaviour and was not afraid to speak her mind. ‘My daughter spoke up and said: “Hey, you can’t do that,” ‘ recalls Mr Sullivan. ‘And he couldn’t take it. She’s much better off without him.’ Coleen is now working as an anchor for a TV station in southern California.

As for the Earl? Well, he now divides his time between London, his family’s ancestral seat at Althorp in Northamptonshire, and Cornwall, where his new girlfriend has a home.

A tribute in memory of the Princess was laid by the Spencer family at Althorp House, NorthamptonA tribute in memory of the Princess was laid by the Spencer family at Althorp House, Northampton

When he is in London, the Earl’s gleaming Maserati can be seen parked outside the house. Even the cheapest Maserati, combining Italian style and engineering perfection, costs in excess of £50,000, which, it could be argued, rather puts those
‘maintenance payments’ into perspective.

The latest woman on his arm, Bianca Eliot, 34, a mother of three and widow of the late Bohemian aristocrat Jago Eliot, has a grace-and-favour home in the Cornish village of Tideford, on the Port Eliot estate of her father-in-law, the Earl of St Germans.

The couple met at the Groucho Club in Soho two years ago. Spencer proposed in March and the couple are said to be planning a wedding possibly as early as September, raising the unlikely prospect of Earl Spencer one day becoming the nominal head by marriage of both the 6,000acre Port Eliot estate, as well as Althorp, with an extended family of nine children ranging in age from four to 19.

The irony, of course, is that throughout his life, Charles Spencer has shown he is ill-suited to family life. That is evident, some might say, from the writ he has now served on his team of lawyers.

The maintenance payments must be nothing more than small change to Charles Spencer. But having said that, the upkeep of Althorp, which is shrouded in scaffolding, is a major financial drain. Items from the family’s estate, you may remember, including a Rubens painting, were recently sold at auction to raise £10 million for a new roof.

Also, the number of paying visitors visiting Althorp is down because of all the building work. (Inquiries into any details of the earl’s finances lead to an immediate letter from his libel lawyers).

But let’s return to the divorce lawyers at the centre of our story.

Charles Spencer’s writ discloses embarrassing remarks his barrister Sir Nicholas made about the High Court judge who decided the Spencers’ divorce hearing in June 2009 should be open to the Press.

And it was this aspect of the case that made the papers this week, rather than the more fascinating details about Charles Spencer and the levels of financial provision he has made for his children.

Perhaps it was understandable in the circumstances.

Sir Nicholas, a keen farmer, named seven pigs after the judge in disgust at his verdict in an email to his client, including: ‘Selfregarding’, ‘Pompous’ and ‘Pillock’  –  names, no doubt, earl Spencer’s critics would claim apply equally to him.

With perhaps one other: ‘Penny Pinching.’

A collection of items from Althorp auctioned a Christie's earlier this month A collection of items from Althorp auctioned a Christie’s earlier this month